The Transformative Properties of Glass


Photography is replete with recurring themes—doors, windows, reflections, shadows, horses, and signboards. I have, in the past, made references to some of them; an outcome of my fascination and curiosity towards determining why and how these specific subjects captured the imagination of its seekers. A part of me believes that whatever it is that we do is a result of what we’ve been taught. The other part knows that some of us are fueled by an impetus to disapprove certain learnings that we’ve been conditioned to regard and expect. If you’re interested, pick up The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer, as it is filled with examples of similar subjects shot by some of the most noted photographers from the medium.

Once again, I’d like to introduce you to yet another subject, in fact, an item that has appeared in many forms in photographs, and how it has, in its various manifestations, transformed the very nature of the image.

Recently, I happened to see a photograph that I had shot about two years ago. It was my reflection against the surface of a tall, reflective glass window. Nothing groundbreaking here, however, it got me thinking about images that have been made of reflective glass. Andrea Stone’s series, entitled City Reflections, was the first thing that occurred to me. Painstakingly composed, her photographs capture the reflection of buildings on the façade of other buildings with reflective window panes. She was enticed by the projection of the distorted and painterly urban landscapes on the glass.

Let’s also look at the various images shot through transparent glass, and how it wispily melds the interior to the exterior, or vice versa. One of the earliest examples of this is Eugène Atget’s photographs of storefront mannequins, where, if you look closely at the glass, you’ll see fragments of Paris’ soon to be demolished structures reflected on its surface. Some pictures even show a tall, hunched Atget standing with his camera. Lee Friedlander, too, did something similar with storefront mannequins, except that it lacked Atget’s historical purpose, and instead, focused on notions of sex, fashion and consumerism. There’s also Walker Evans’ Lunchroom Window, New York, shot in 1929. Here, the mannequins are replaced by people eating lunch, with New York’s buildings superimposed on the glass. Lastly, there’s Saul Leiter’s photographs of foggy glass to also look at. There’s no obvious layering of the interior to the exterior here (maybe on a subliminal level). However, his pictures are representative of how the changes on the exterior of the window (weather and light) affects the transparency of the glass. Leiter did the same with pedestrians, by photographing them from an interior space, through the same foggy glass. He was simply taken in by how condensation on the glass blurred the colours to create a painterly effect.

Eventually, my thoughts meandered towards windows, albeit the more traditional kind, like the ones we find in homes and cars. It is glass that gives windows purpose. For instance, take a look at Josef Sudek’s pictures of his studio window (La Dernière Rose, 1956), and Aaron Siskind’s photographs of the same subject, but with broken glass. Where Sudek’s pictures invoke a feeling of contemplation, love, and longing, Siskind’s photographs take on an abstract, artsy quality. In both these cases (as well as in the earlier references), the subject (the window) remains the same, but, it is the physical quality of the glass that changes the perception or context of the photograph.

We come now to mirrors; Andre Kertesz’s surreal, distorted portraits of women in the nude, shot using a fun house mirror. Or even Albert Watson’s fragmented portrait of a woman (Fanny Fournier in Mirrors, New York City, 2010) using differently sized circular mirrors. And finally, Herb Ritts’ ingenious portrait of Jack Nicholson holding a magnifying glass.

Glass, as you might have already gauged, has been reiterated throughout the course of photography. I can’t think of any other object as versatile and dynamic, or one that is perennially morphing its physical state to provide various avenues for us to explore, probe and convey our innermost thoughts. Lest you forget, glass is also what makes photography possible. Through the lens, via the viewfinder, and even through our cellphone screen, glass allows us to look at what’s in front of us. This is one more purpose that it fulfills.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Better Photography.